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Meaningness & Terror Management Theory

Jonathan Shockley 2017-03-15

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Terror Management Theory . It has amassed substantial evidence. This is a good paper summarizing 30 years of research

And a video I edited last month presenting an overview with some of the relevant evidence & thoughts at the end.

A little over 4 years ago I e-mailed one of the TMT authors (Jeff Greenberg) and asked him:

“Wouldn’t a deeper scientifically valid conceptualization of self as a point of awareness in the midst of power-relationships (atoms, chemicals, genes, memes, ego, emotions etc) aided by meditation and breathing exercises constitute a non-heroic partial escape from death anxiety?”

His answer was:

“Perhaps, but I don’t think a scientifically valid conceptualization of self is phenomologically authentic.”

This seems to me related to the difficulties in internalizing the notion of “meaningness”.

Perhaps a possible definition of meaningness would be a (partial) detachment from self-esteem-generating cultural meaning structures in favor of a stronger reliance on

a) a natural pre-human perception of meaning as an informative subjective feeling state (originally providing adaptive information about the presence of reliable associations in the environment)

b) a partially natural human tendency toward accurate meanings stemming from our greater intelligence.

c) an unnatural scientific conceptualization of self. Since science, or the most “accurate” notions of self at any given historical period vary, the idea here is to realize that total cultural detachment is an illusion, and that one must “chose a devil” at whichever historical period one happens to exist: one must try to exert some rational choice over the options one has, even while knowing that these may entail gross errors (i.e. a huge % of our cultural beliefs throughout history were wrong). I’ve argued in the past that the ecocidal, unsustainable nature of our industrial society may render us more immoral and irrational than we’re really aware of. And so there’s a possibility that most of the supposedly more “rational” choices we make within this framework are irrational (e.g. advances that eliminate infant mortality, save lives, increase food production, living standards etc), may come at the expense of countless other species going extinct, and an eventual environmental collapse that shortens humanity’s prospects by hundreds of thousands of years.

If TMT is correct, nihilism occurs largely as a result of the erosion of meaning structures that provide us with the strong sense of personal value we need to quell our unconscious death anxiety.

And so activities that relieve anxiety at a deep level (such as meditation or the avoidance of stressful circumstances) together with the provision of human species-appropriate stimulae like nutritious food, exercise and productive interactions, would seem essential to allow one to commence the task of more easily finding meaning or associated contentment in more “modest” environmental associations. Mindfulness does, of course, come to mind.

And so “standing on the edge of a sword” to quote the (Tibetan?) Buddhist expression denoting the “midway” between eternalism and nihilsm, would seem to be a trying endeavor in which one attempts to balance oneself on the edge of a sword that oscillates between eternalism, nihilism, always partially immersed in one or the other, and constantly making one fall “off the sword” in one or the other direction and forcing one to get back on it.

An interesting question would be whether the closer proximity of the sword to the waters of eternalism allow a larger number of people to stand longer on the sword. Buddhism, has after all featured beliefs about reincarnation in most of its forms. That seems to indicate that meditation, monastic life, various precepts etc didn’t provide enough meaning to most adherents.

Strong eternalism (literal immortality, cosmic significance) such as that experienced by primitive hunter-gatherers, did allow them to less anxiously live in proximity with the empirical realities of nature (including the pervasive decay and death in it), allowing their intelligence & instincts to continue making fairly accurate assessments of the environment - opening their perception to those more “modest” meanings.

Materialist civilization, and especially our modern era lost direct contact with the empirical reality of nature, but has gone empirically further in narrower directions of investigation. This has allowed for the truth of nihilism to emerge. And while this may allow a minority of individuals to find a more profound “meaningness” - to stand on that sword more firmly; the majority of us will likely fall off & continue our frantic search and consumption of inadequate sources of meaning (symbolic immortality/legacy & earthly importance).

Due to this inadequacy, our civilization, while eternalistic, is closer to the spectrum of nihilism than more religious past societies.

And, to put it metaphorically, a big lie (eternalism) can allow for more truth than a small lie (nihilism).

interesting stuff

jz 2017-04-15

i’ve enjoyed the past hour or so flipping through all of this. i’ve recently been tinkering with a praxeology/non-aggression principle hybrid called Non-Condescension that uses many of the words you use. i didn’t realize it but Non-Con also walks the knife’s edge between eternalism and nihilism. Non-Con grants that we each (must) have values at all times to inform our judgments while at the same time limiting our authority to our modest, individual selves who act under unique circumstances which do not, by nature, grant a higher authority (or godliness from which to condescend) over the circumstances of others. Praxeology with a pulse, science with a conscience, something like that. This short post is what kicked it all off.


I’m having a heck of a time with your spam filter and posting a link so if you’re interested you can google “obamuh An Ethical Cost Of The Non-Aggression Principle” on blogspot.

keep up the good work, i’m intrigued!

Link problem

Brent 2021-08-15

One of the links includes a wrong port # (8000).

Fixed link

David Chapman 2021-08-15

Thank you very much! I have fixed it. (Copied-and-pasted from the dev environment, as you probably recognized :)

Link issue was transient

Brent 2021-08-15

seems to have fixed itself. Sorry for the noise.

I would like to donate to you.

jj 2021-10-10

Still working my way through your writings. But, I like this very much so far. How might I send you a donation as a token of my appreciation?


John Swindle 2021-10-14

In a reply to a comment you have, I think, identified yourself as David Chapman. Otherwise it’s “I,” “me,” and “my.” Would you consider putting your name out there on your websites, maybe in the existing “About me” section? It’s something people might be curious about.

It's-a me, Mario!

David Chapman 2021-10-14

Yup, no attempt to obscure my identity, I just forgot to mention it. I’ve updated the page to include it.

Great. thanks!

John Swindle 2021-10-15


Broken link to "Starting points"

Reuben Thomas 2022-02-03

The link to “starting points” on this page, that is, to , is broken.

Broken link

David Chapman 2022-02-03

Thank you very much! I’ve edited it to remove the link. “Starting points” was a feature I removed some time back… it seemed to make less sense as more of the book outline filled in.

pdf or hard copy?

James 2022-11-18

Hi, I would like to read your book on Meaning, but it is hard to do so on the computer. Do you have a pdf I could print or hardcopy of the book I could purchase? I would very much like to read it in a physical format.

Thank you for your work and understanding.


Lea 2022-11-30

I love what you write about.
Do you occasionally mentor Tantrikas-to-be?


David Chapman 2022-11-30

I’m glad you like it!

I don’t mentor Tantrikas-to-be, but my spouse Rin’dzin does. Also you might find helpful the community Rin’dzin leads, Evolving Ground.


Lea 2022-11-30

Thank you!

The Density of Pears

SusanC 2023-01-23

Pears are, in fact, heavier than water.

At least, the Conference Pear that I tested in my kitchen this morning was heavier than water.

(For readers who are mystified by the discussion of the density of pears:
and see the credit to David in the footnote).


Brian Chapman 2023-04-07

David, I began reading your summary page on Meaningness, I have to say that I was a bit taken aback and triggered when you referred to monism as smug stupidity. Surely, in the context that you provided it sounds ignorant, and dull to assume you are a god. However, I’m curious as you mentioned yourself a Buddhist, what Hindu scriptures you may have read? Additionally, I am curious if you have any hermetic influences to arrive to your opinion?

I would have to agree that assuming that you are the ultimate God is a pretty audacious rationalization for somebody to come to. However, I would like to think that selflessness, succumbing to ego death, as opposed to taking a position of mentalism exclusively, are attributes, not of narcissism, but of selflessness and surrender to the awe and greatness that is the “all” the “void” or that which also may described the realm of the Godhead. May we not be destroyed by our reintroduction “the one” at death but enveloped in It’s eternity lest we choose to manifest incarnate again

Hollow men

David Collier 2023-07-05

Hollow men write about things they know nothing about: pure speculation. How does this help the world? The final arbiter of truth is experience, not an intellectual dance. Eckhart Tolle is another hollow man; self-deluded but not deliberately dishonest like Osho and Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi.
And Siddhartha Gautama was NOT enlightened: having rejected his father he denied this possibility (of what is actually a Grace from God the Father).

Hey Jacob!( Few words for ya)

Rap Ranasinghe 2023-07-18

Jacob I think you’ll see this. So I was the one who insulted you calling you in filthy words.(I am the reason that you close the comment section of the Buddhism for Vampires)I was very furious when I saw the Buddhism for Vampires,the fiction of your’s.I am so sorry about that bad comments.You need to understand that Lord Buddha or his religion buddhism has nothing to do with these vampire theories. You need to understand that first.If you trying to build a conspiracy around buddhism(What you call a fiction) you should study and understand the suttas the lord Buddha has preeched.all of the preachments of the Lord Buddha is included in “Thripitakaya” book. If you read it you’ll understand the whole tfact about the Buddhism and not for that, you’ll be more wiser and full of wisdom.Noe if you don’t believe me just listen to some of the preechment of the lord Buddha.They are available in Youtube.So think twice before you write a fiction about buddhism.So sorry about the past comments of mine.I was just a kid… 🙏 Thanks!

Dynamical chaos

Matěj Dvořák 2023-09-03

Hi, I’m asking here because the relevant page doesn’t exist yet. In a few places you link to a future page on dynamical chaos, with the most specific description being “a more relevant, macroscopic understanding of distributed causality” (I guess it’s related to mutual interaction).

I’m a physics undergrad who recently took a chaos theory course. The field is full of amazing things (fractals, attractors, bifurcation cascades, transitions in and out of chaos…), so I ended up in a deep dive through textbooks and founding papers from the field, and I also read James Gleick’s Chaos (which is incredibly frustrating because it talks of dramatic significance of the theory without giving one the technical understanding from which it springs).

But in the end I’ve struggled to get much usable insight out of chaos theory. I can sense that something is there, and there are lots of attached interesting applications (like control theory), but as for the actual theory of chaotic systems, I’ve only ever seen people build systems that follow simple toy chaotic models well (such as the Lorentz waterwheel) and use them as justification that the toy models are useful. But a large part of the appeal of chaos theory was hope that it would help understanding existing systems (like turbulence, biological systems, or economic data), and largely that seems not to have happened.

There’s a certain promise that chaos theory is a different way of seeing the world than traditional physics, but I’ve never seen it developed coherently past that description. Your description sounds like it could be that missing link. Do you perhaps have at least some pointers for what phenomena you find relevant here (since chaos theory is very nebulous and different people class different things under it) and how they actually play out in the Real World (with all of its nebulosity and hard-to-separate situations)?


Chaos theory: more woo

David Chapman 2023-09-03

Hi Matěj Dvořák,

Thank you very much for a most perspicuous comment! I’m very sorry to have gotten your hopes up. The thing I didn’t write would not have done what you wanted, I’m afraid.

The way I wanted to use dynamical chaos was to counter the particular sort of eternalistic certainty some people get from learning a little bit of physics. They want to believe that everything can be fully understood and controlled because “reductionism is true.”

A big part of the appeal of pop quantum woo is that it is (mis)understood as a disproof of that kind of rationalist dualist eternalism. Unfortunately it substitutes a Romantic monist eternalism, which is worse.

Understanding dynamical chaos is much easier than an accurate understanding of quantum, and it’s a better refutation of physics-based rationalist certainty, and it seemed harder to misuse as the basis for eternalism.

Unfortunately, as you point out, there’s not much substance to chaos theory. The framework is sufficiently general that strong results aren’t feasible. There’s some cute math, but meaningful applications are scarce.

Instead, pop “Chaos Theory” has become a new(ish) brand of eternalist woo itself. It’s The Answer To Life, The Universe, And Everything. Chaos is like quantum in being science-y but sufficiently mysterious (unless you actually know the details) that you can invoke it to support a Romantic monist Wow, Cosmic! Everything Is Everything, It’s All Connected! worldview.

This has produced a ton of pop-science nonsense. Even more annoyingly, it has also enabled also a ton of garbage pseudo-academic “science” coming out of the Santa Fe Institute and places like that.

The links you found are from stuff I wrote around 2008, expecting to follow through Real Soon Now. I now think that when/if I ever revise those bits, I will write approximately two paragraphs about chaos to fill the hole, rather than a full-web-page discussion. Sorry again about that.

I salute your intelligence in recognizing the problem here!


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